But once inside, everyone was greeted with back-of-the-classroom laughs. A big box had replaced Soto in front of the outfielder’s old locker. Joey Meneses and Josh Palacios, a pair of replacements, were greeting new teammates. Goodbyes became hellos.
“Too late!” yelled Victor Robles, referring to how Soto and Bell were on their way to San Diego. “They’re already gone!”
In the hour before the trade was official, the Nationals’ clubhouse seemed filled with an invisible haze. There was laughter. There was frustration. There was more than enough gallows humor to go around. One player said that “there’s no return that will be good enough. It’s Juan f—— Soto.” Another smiled and asked: “Am I going next? Nah … No one wants me.” And without Soto and Bell, who handled a large share of Washington’s media responsibilities, there was a hunt for quotes.
First, the group of cameras and notepads rushed to Alcides Escobar, a veteran shortstop who has five appearances since late June, two of which were as a pitcher in a blowout. From across the room, reliever Andrés Machado wondered: “What in the world are they talking to Esky about?” Then once that scrum broke, it found Meneses, a 30-year-old first baseman who later homered in his major league debut against the New York Mets.
Meneses got the call after spending 12 years in the minors. Having arrived on a morning flight from Columbus, Ohio, luggage tags hung from his bat bag. He fielded questions around where Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon used to dress for games. Down the row, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin still have stalls. But in less than three years, most members of the title team are elsewhere.
“All of this feels so crazy,” catcher Tres Barrera said in the tunnel between the clubhouse and dugout. “I have known Juan since he was 17. He was a kid trying to figure it out here. When we were in Hagerstown, before he was fluent in English, we would go to Chipotle and I would help him order. Then we’d chat in English so he could learn more. It was cool, you know?
Barrera trailed off a bit and stared at the rubber floor.
“I don’t know,” he continued. “This is just weird, man.”
Side conversations made one thing very clear Tuesday: This is a distinct case of a front office and clubhouse having misaligned goals. The players and coaches are trying to win the games in front of them. By trading Soto and Bell for shortstop C.J. Abrams, outfielders Robert Hassell III and James Wood, left-handed pitcher MacKenzie Gore, first baseman Luke Voit and right-handed pitcher Jarlin Susana — three of whom have yet to reach the majors — the front office worsened an already dismal present for the chance at a better future.
That’s a disconnect. Soto and Bell are now in the thick of a pennant race. The Nationals’ current roster features zero left-handed relievers and arguably three designated hitters. Meanwhile, Abrams is headed to the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings, Hassell to the high-Class A Wilmington Blue Rocks and Wood to the low-Class A Fredericksburg Nationals. Gore will join the Nationals in Philadelphia on Thursday but is on the 15-day injured list with elbow inflammation. Whenever Voit is activated, he will immediately lead the team with 13 homers.
As the deadline approached Tuesday, a small handful of players were unsure of their fate. Reliever Carl Edwards Jr. walked in from the trainer’s room and glanced at his phone. Then he put it at his side, lifted it, put at his side, lifted it and glanced again. Kyle Finnegan was asked if he had jitters and shrugged. Ultimately, neither Edwards or Finnegan was dealt — nor was anyone else. Yet before they knew that, and because of Soto’s and Bell’s departures, reliever Sean Doolittle admitted the “vibes are going to be weird.”
“Shoot, as you guys are standing here, they’re showing it on the TV behind us on ESPN right now,” Doolittle said, nodding to Soto trade analysis on the TV facing his locker. “It’s very surreal. In this game, you always know that there’s possibilities for trades and for movement like that, and you never really get used to it. Even though there was a chance of this, it seemed like for the last month or so, it still feels a little bit shocking and disorienting.
“I don’t know how I feel about it.”